Shiro Worship: Celebrating Seattle's First Sushi Chef

Local publisher Chin Music Press has a gorgeous new illustrated memoir and cookbook. We bring you an
Brangien Davis  |   December 2011   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION
Shiro has a special license to pull seafood from Shilshole Bay for restaurant dishes

Seattle’s legendary sushi chef, Shiro Kashiba—still a self-proclaimed “sushi bartender” at age 70—was a locavore long before it was trendy. In his beautiful new memoir, Shiro: Wit, Wisdom & Recipes from a Sushi Pioneer (published by Seattle’s Chin Music Press; $20), he speaks of the bounty of Puget Sound when he arrived here in 1966, and how, during his first jobs at Tanaka and Maneki, he served rockfish, geoduck, salmon roe and Dungeness crab from the Sound; pulled kelp from Shilshole Bay; and picked matsutake mushrooms in the forests of the Cascades. His appreciation of local sea life—and his serious concern for its survival—permeates the book, which itself is awash in gorgeous illustrations, vintage photos, and recipes and tips from the sushi master. Forty-five years after landing in Seattle, now boasting legions of regular customers (including Bill and Melinda Gates, Ichiro Suzuki and Gerard Schwarz), Shiro tells readers how he got here. It’s a lovely immigrant song. -Brangien Davis


SHUN (shoo-n) n. the season.
Excerpted from Shiro: Wit, Wisdom & Recipes from a Sushi Pioneer (Chin Music Press, $20)

Photo by Ann Norton

Shun. This word has been my guiding light as a sushi chef. Put simply, it means “in season.” But as I traveled from my birthplace in Kyoto to the Ginza district of Tokyo, where I started my career, and eventually to Seattle, the word began to take on greater meaning. Once I settled in the Pacific Northwest more than four decades ago, I began to see what shun truly means. The bounty of this region is astonishing. Rarities that demand top dollar in Asia were plentiful here: the long, odd-looking geoduck lay ignored deep in the ocean floor when I first arrived in Seattle; the spiny but succulent sea urchin in the Pacific Northwest is the most delicious I have ever tasted; ocean smelt, such a versatile fish and relatively unknown in Japan, is everywhere; tasty ferns that Japanese covet grow wild in the roughs of my favorite golf courses. The riches of this region quickly turned me into a locavore. It also gave me the edge I needed to survive in the brutal restaurant business. For more than forty years, I survived by using local ingredients to build my reputation and recover my losses. I found that the local bounty was more delicious and more affordable than anything I could fly in from Japan; thus I began to change the way I served sushi—and I believe that change brought me closer to the roots of sushi.

When I came to Seattle in 1966, there wasn’t a sushi bar anywhere. Locals ate some rolls, for sure, but a fully operating sushi bar as we know it today didn’t exist yet.

Fast forward to 2011 and sushi is as American as apple pie (a dish that’s near to my heart, but that’s a story for a later chapter). While I am thrilled that Japanese cuisine has been embraced by North Americans, I’m also a bit worried about where it’s all headed. I’m worried that the bounty of the Pacific Northwest is not completely appreciated by its residents, which makes it easier for others to exploit. The geoduck burrowed into the sands of the Puget Sound, for example, is becoming harder and harder to find as more of it is being sucked out with vacuum tubes and exported to East Asia for increasingly exorbitant prices. I don’t want the Puget Sound’s bounty to be exhausted. We need to conserve and respect our resources if we want them to last.

Photo by Ann Norton

Sushi fans may have heard the term Edomae sushi. This is the classical fare most people think of when they hear the word “sushi.” A slab of bluefin, some yellowtail, a thin slice of octopus, sweet egg wrapped in seaweed, a shrimp, a piece of eel slathered in sauce and a pile of sliced ginger on the side. This meal has been replicated all over the world. But as I started to understand the bounty of the Puget Sound region, I began reflecting on that phrase: Edomae sushi. Edo was the original name of Tokyo. The term mae means “front.” Edomae originally meant food pulled out of Edo Bay, today’s Tokyo Bay. As Edomae sushi flourished and began to be served throughout Japan, and later, the world, the original meaning became less and less important. And today, sushi pulled from the polluted and heavily trafficked Tokyo Bay may sound like a sick joke. But back then, Edo Bay was teeming with fish. It had a bounty not unlike the one of my adopted home in the Pacific Northwest.

Over the years, the idea of replicating Edomae sushi for my North American customers seemed an increasingly arcane exercise. Why fly in the delicious but overfished bluefin when equally delicious albacore could be bought from the fishing boats and specialty markets here? Why not add more indigenous oysters to the menu? And let’s not forget my beloved ocean smelt. I became so enamored of the versatile, inexpensive and tasty fish that I once prepared a ten-course ocean-smelt dinner for my guests.

As the years went on, I replaced Edomae with Puget Sound-mae, or more accurately, Pacific Northwest-mae. Sourcing local ingredients gave me the edge I needed to survive in a cutthroat business. And, if I do say so myself, the local fare tastes better.

But let me be clear: I am about as traditional of a sushi chef as there is. In sushi, the simple taste is best. This is the most important point in understanding Japanese cuisine.

Simple, fresh, local. These are my touchstones. And this is what shun means to me.

A few years ago, two hearty fellows in cowboy hats came into my restaurant and ordered a couple of fusion rolls. I politely explained that Shiro’s isn’t the best place for that kind of sushi and pointed them in the direction of a restaurant I thought they would like. I’m not sure what they thought of having their business turned down, but I hope they found what they were looking for. At Shiro’s, it’s about preserving tradition, but it’s also about infusing that tradition with fresh life. Seattle is a wonderful place for me to do just that.

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Other excerpts cherry-picked from the book:

ON SHIRO'S FIRST APPRENTICESHIP AT YOSHINO RESTAURANT, IN TOKYO'S POSH GINZA DISTRICT: Another chore I had during my apprenticeship was to go to the Tsukiji Fish Market a few times a week with the head chefs to pick out the fish for that day….For six and a half years, I would come here with the masters at the crack of dawn and watch as they picked their fish for the day. I learned that when picking a larger fish, the body and the fins should have a shine to them. The eyes should be clear, not cloudy, and when you touch a gill and find a little blood there, that’s a good sign. I still use these methods today when I do my shopping in Seattle. And I think it’s fair to say that I’ve gotten a reputation for being one of the pickiest customers. My masters would be proud.

ON MAKING THE LEAP FROM TOKYO TO SEATTLE: At Yoshino, traders would share tales of doing business in the U.S. One regular customer traveled frequently to Seattle. He told me about his favorite place to eat there: Tanaka Restaurant, which was in the International District. I told him of my dream to live and work in the U.S. The customer told me that the next time he was in Seattle, he’d drop by Tanaka Restaurant and mention me. I thanked him, but didn’t really expect anything to come of it. However, he kept his word, and a few months after our conversation, I was writing a letter to Mr. Tanaka to inquire about a position. Mr. Tanaka and I exchanged letters for a couple of years before he eventually flew to Tokyo to meet me and offer me a job. …Finally, at the age of twenty-five, I was headed to America.

ON THE MOVE TO MANEKI, AND SEATTLE’S FIRST SUSHI BAR:
In the early '70s, when I was walking the fishing piers and markets and dreaming of opening a sushi bar in Seattle, the Tanaka Restaurant was struck with tragedy. Ted Tanaka was killed in a car crash. It was a sad time for all of us—after all, he was the reason I was living in the United States. His widow vowed to carry on the restaurant, and for a few months, we tried, but with him gone, it never felt right. Eventually, she decided that the only option left was to close down, and so, my first job in the United States was over. ¶ I am forever indebted to the Tanaka family. They gave me my start in the U.S. It was with sadness that I left that job. But I was lucky. Seattle was beginning to awaken to the charms of Japanese cuisine, and it wasn’t hard to find a new job. After taking a few months off to decompress, I began working at Maneki Restaurant. That was 1970, and Maneki is still going strong today on Sixth Ave. in Seattle’s International District. It’s a cultural landmark. ¶ Although my tenure there was brief, it turned out to be a seminal time for me. This fabulous restaurant gave me the opportunity to do what I couldn’t quite pull off with the Tanakas. They let me operate a full-service sushi bar—Seattle’s first—in the front of the restaurant. It’s still there today; when you enter the restaurant, turn left and you’ll find the cozy bar. This is where sushi started in Seattle. 

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SHIRO’S TIPS:
PICKING A SUSHI RESTAURANT
If I’m going out to a sushi dinner, I’ll look for a place with lots of customers. That may sound like obvious advice, but with sushi it’s important: A busy restaurant will use its supply of fish faster and replenish it faster. You’re more likely to be eating fresh fish. If you’ve ever been to a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant, you know what I mean—you want those pieces that have just been placed on the belt, not the ones that keep going round and round.

Soy Sauce Is Not for Dunking!
I don’t know how many times I’ve had to hold my tongue behind the sushi bar when a diner soaks a piece of sushi in soy sauce as if putting a tortilla chip in a bowl of guacamole. Using too much soy sauce kills the fresh flavor of the fish and rice. Remember that sushi rice has already been seasoned. Dip the fish side of the sushi briefly in the soy sauce to enhance the flavor, not overpower it.

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